Interview with scientist – Jason Shepherd

This week we had a pleasure speaking to Dr. Jason Shepherd for our interview with scientist series.

Dr. Jason Shepherd is currently an Assistant Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine. He joined the U in 2013 after obtaining postdoctoral training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his Ph.D. at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. The Shepherd lab is elucidating how the brain stores information from the molecular level through in vivo neuronal networks and how these processes go awry in neurological disorders and in cognitive decline during aging. Looking specifically at Arc, the neuronal gene critical for long-term memory and synaptic plasticity, the Shepherd lab recently discovered that Arc has homology to retroviruses and is able to form viral-like capsids capable of transporting RNA. This finding provides a conceptual advance in our understanding of information encoding and storage in the brain.
Dr. Shepherd’s research has garnered recognition worldwide; he is the recipient of the 2010 Gruber International Research Award in Neuroscience from the Society of Neuroscience and the International Society for Neurochemistry Young Investigator Award. He is also a recipient of a K99/R00 pathway to independence award from the National Institutes of Health and is a National Academy of Sciences Kavli Fellow.
Tell us about yourself.
I grew up in South Africa and then New Zealand, before moving to the US for my Ph.D. Graduate school was at Johns Hopkins University and then postdoc at MIT. I started my independent position here at the University of Utah just over 5 years ago.

My fascination of the natural world is embodied in my profession, but I’ve also recently become an avid amateur landscape photographer ( I’m also a huge sports fan and am a certified rugby referee.

What’s your area of research?

Brains have an amazing ability to learn and store information for long periods – in some cases, a lifetime. A major challenge in neuroscience is to understand how neuronal networks are sculpted by experience and how proteins/genes contribute to circuit modification. The goal of my lab’s research is to understand information storage, from the molecular level through in vivoneuronal networks and how these processes go awry in neurological disorders. My lab utilizes coordinated biochemical, cell biological, electrophysiological and imaging studies both in vitroand in vivo.

What do you think about the current publication trend?

The publishing world is going through a revolution; open access, preprints and rethinking of peer review. In general, these trends are good for science and scientists. Publishing papers has become such a protracted and painful process that something needs to change. For the most part, I think the eLife experiment has been a success and model for peer review. That’s not to say it can’t be improved, but it’s been refreshing to see them experiment with the process.

Is publish or perish a valid statement for young scientists?

Unfortunately, yes, this is the reality of academia and the currency we work on. Your body of work is what you are evaluated on at each stage of your career. However, how that work is evaluated is key. There’s been a general trend to move away from metrics like impact factor and where you publish, to actually evaluating how your science has impacted a field.

What do you think of preprint servers? Do you think they are useful?

I’m a big fan! I think it’s accelerating access to the latest scientific research and speeds up the academic enterprise. While I still think there’s a place for peer review, until we can accelerate publication times, preprints serve an important intermediate.

Do you think science is communicated well to non-scientists? What are some ways to improve science communication?

In general, I think science is poorly communicated. This is partly due to apathy by scientists and a lack of incentives to do so. But, given our current intellectual climate, I think this is a big mistake. Not only are most scientists funded by the tax payer, society as a whole benefits from an informed and educated public. Scientists are also poorly trained to communicate their work to a general audience. University communication departments can help. There are also excellent workshops, such as the Alan Alda center for communicating science (, that fill this need. I also think that the TED format, if done properly, can really convey scientific concepts to a curious public.

As we know, there are more PhD’s graduating every year as compared to available tenure track positions. Do you think there is way to improve this? 

This is a tough one. On the one hand, graduate students are the life blood of the academic enterprise, on the other it’s clear that the system is broken. Obviously, availability is dictated by funding and resources. Increase funding and you will have more tenure track positions. I do think that there some avenues to fixing the bottleneck: Create stable staff scientist positions for those who do not want to be PIs; limit the size of labs so that mentorship is incentivized; ensure that students get a broad skillset that includes writing and communication.

What are alternative career options for young scientists apart from applying for tenure track positions?

Alternative career? Those tenure track positions are now the alternative! There are many avenues that PhDs can take. Within science, there’s industry/biotech. Outside of benchwork there’s writing, editing, policy making, patenting, sales, consulting….any job that requires critical thinking.

Apart from science, what do you enjoy doing the most?

I love to get out into nature with my two pups. I’m also an avid traveler and try to see different parts of the world when I can.

What do you think is a recent scientific invention which has changed the way we do science now?

Well, in my field of neuroscience, optogenetics has revolutionized how we probe and interrogate the intact brain. CRISPR has made gene editing in all organisms a relatively straightforward and easy process, it’s been amazing to see the pace of progress in that area!  

It was a great pleasure speaking to you Dr. Shepherd.

You can follow Jason on Twitter @Jasonsynaptic and visit his lab website at



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